MADISON — Jonathan Taylor found out from position coach John Settle that he would be starting if some particular personnel were called to begin the game.
A true freshman running back, playing in only his second collegiate game after performing very well in his debut a week prior, would be thrust into an even more prominent position due to redshirt sophomore Bradrick Shaw’s right leg injury.
“I was just making sure I was ready,” Taylor said. “I knew that if we went 21 or 12 [personnel], that they were going to need me to step up, so that was my main focus going into this game, making sure I stepped up.”
In demonstrative fashion, Taylor did. The 5’11, 214-pound back rushed for 223 yards on 26 carries and three touchdowns in the Wisconsin Badgers’ 31–14 win over the Florida Atlantic Owls on Saturday.
After a slow start by the Wisconsin offense last week against Utah State, Taylor acted as a spark plug once again to get the Badgers running against Florida Atlantic. On the Badgers’ second series, he took a handoff from quarterback Alex Hornibrook and cut inside of left guard Jon Dietzen. Center Tyler Biadasz and right guard Beau Benzschawel cleared room up the middle as Taylor shot past his linemen and into the open field.
A few FAU defenders tried to converge on Taylor to make a tackle, but he shed their attempts at arm tackles—maybe it was his speed that made the Owls look foolhardy—and sprinted down the middle of the field for a 64-yard touchdown to give UW a 7–0 lead.
“The first run I saw, I think he was breaking like four tackles at once,” Hornibrook said. “I was laughing on the field. It was crazy to see. He’s a great running back.”
Taylor wasn’t finished after the first 15 minutes. Following a 35-yard completion from Hornibrook to true freshman Danny Davis, Taylor took a handoff three plays later.
It appeared to be a loss once an FAU defender flew in to swamp the run off a fake of a jet sweep out of 13 personnel, but Taylor eluded him and cut to the outside. Four other Owls tried to bring him down, but the tailback caught the edge and took it for a 29-yard touchdown run.
“Never want to think you’re stopped for a lost,” Taylor said. “You always got to stay confident, just trying to get as many yards as you possible, using everything you can in your arsenal to beat the guys in front of you.”
It was an impressive first half for the running back, as he tallied 148 yards on 17 carries and those two scores.
For all the hype and yards earned during the win on Saturday, Taylor admitted he’ll remember Saturday’s performance for the little things, a comment that showcases a strong maturity for a freshman who just started fall semester last week.
“Ball security, just having one guy take me down,” Taylor said. “Little things that coach ‘Sett’ [running backs coach John Settle] talks about at practice.”
There were some hiccups for Taylor. FAU forged a goal-line stop when head coach Paul Chryst fed his young back the ball four times from within the FAU six-yard line. Taylor admitted he’s prepared to work on that in practice, as that was his first time in that particular game situation.
Most notably, a third-quarter fumble toppled a promising drive. While Taylor worked to churn out first-down yardage, the ball came loose and was recovered by FAU cornerback Raekwon Williams.
Instead of the mishap deflating his confidence, Taylor said he wanted to “come back strong” thereafter.
“When you’re fighting for extra yards it’s important to keep two hands on the ball in traffic,” Taylor said. “Definitely made sure I wanted to respond from that.”
And he did.
The next series, Taylor ran the ball six times for 49 yards. The last carry of that 11-play, 79-yard drive ended with a four-yard score by the Salem, N.J. native.
“He is mature, and he’s, I think, a person with great focus and wants to take advantage of this opportunity,” head coach Paul Chryst said. “I was proud of the way he was after the fumble and his response, and he will learn from it and grow from it and that’s good.”
Taylor’s response also made an impression on his teammates.
“It shows that he’s playing older than he is,” redshirt junior left tackle Michael Deiter said. “You would think a freshman like that—second game, he’s having a really good game—puts the ball on the ground. You’d expect him to hang his head, be really upset, the end of the world, stuff like that, but he didn’t. Just kept battling. Kept a mature mindset about it, and it was really nice to see.”
Taylor became Wisconsin’s first true freshman running back to start since Zach Brown back in 2007. More impressively, he became the fourth true freshman in UW history to rush for 200 yards in a game.
The other three? Alan Ameche (1951), Ron Dayne (five times in 1996), and Brown.
”You know, I’m just out there having fun,” Taylor said. “On the wall, as we’re coming up from the tunnel, it just says, ‘Have Fun, Play the Game.’ You got to be grateful that you’re here, so you’re just here having fun, but it is humbling to be mentioned with the certain things I’m doing.
“But just have fun and play the game.”